How to assemble your leadership team

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This advice is excerpted from the IBM Center for the Business of Government's "Getting It Done: A Guide for Government Executives," which has been updated and republished for 2013.

Agencies are too complicated to be managed at a distance by a small cadre of political appointees developing a strategy and then directing a larger body of career staff to execute against that strategy. Such an approach will run into obstacles that could have been avoided with a wider initial conversation between your political staff and career staff. It needs to be a joint effort.

Leverage the senior career staff: Find whom to listen to and on what

Your agency is large and complex, with all the vices of a large bureaucracy. It has a cadre of senior career managers who are ready and able to get that large bureaucracy to do what you want it to do. Those senior career managers support your agency's mission and recognize that they need political leadership to achieve it. Those senior managers will be critical to your success but are also part of that same bureaucracy.

The senior career managers overseeing this bureaucracy are skilled at getting the bureaucracy to move forward, although their approaches may sometimes stick too close to the traditional. The vehicle may be obsolete, but they know how to drive it.

Getting it Done

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You will find many people in your agency at both senior and lower levels who have an entrepreneurial bent. Unlike the private-sector entrepreneur who pursues profit, these government entrepreneurs pursue program results or transformation. They care about the mission and know how to get the larger organization to move in a desired direction. Many have good ideas on how to improve service delivery that will assist you in your own agenda.

Your senior leadership team can help you leverage this entrepreneurial energy as well as get the bureaucratic behemoth you now manage to move in the right direction.

However, you may need different skills from those your agency needed in the past. You may find some of your staff too wedded to the status quo and too quick to explain why the way things work is the way things should be. Your most important skill will be figuring out whom to listen to and on what. When some people tell you not to take a course of action, they may be warning you against very real dangers. When others warn you against a course of action, they may simply be embracing traditional ways of operating.

You will need to figure out who are the former and who are the latter. Further, you will find that one person has good insights in one area and poor ones in another. One may be good on the politics but weak on program realities. One may be strong on program issues but oblivious to the political ramifications. Leveraging the right strengths from the right people leads to success. Not listening at all or listening to the wrong people on the wrong issues risks failure.

Hire senior political staff with the right political talents

Your career staff is largely in place but will be less effective without political leadership. Selection of your political appointees will be among your most important decisions and will need to meet the needs of both you and the White House. Most of the selection criteria will be specific to your agency and the job, but some are more general in nature.

Choose appointees who have energy and are committed to your agenda. They should see the larger picture and commit to stick around for a while..

Choose appointees who have the talents and existing relationships to work effectively with political interests outside your agency and with your stakeholders. They will be particularly important in working with your agency's key constituencies.

Choose appointees who have the technical and people skills needed for the specific job. You will be under pressure to employ political staff that the administration would like to place for various reasons. Not all candidates have the right skills for your needs. Match skills to needs.

Choose appointees who have energy and are committed to your agenda. They should see the larger picture and commit to stick around for a while. Many appointees have a short time horizon for a job. It needs to be long enough to meet your needs.

Finally, at the risk of being indelicate, choose appointees who will support you over other political interests. You will need political staff that is loyal to you and your agenda first.

Blend political and career: Leverage their different strengths

Your success will depend on your ability to build an effective senior management team to carry out your and the administration's agenda. It will need to be a blend of senior political and career staff working together. It should not be an inner circle of political appointees who then communicate with the career staff. That road leads to failure as programs with major flaws not visible to the political staff get started and later need to be adjusted or, worse, fail. Better to fix the problems internally as part of the design than fix them publicly as part of a redesign.

Political appointees often begin their tenure with reservations about the career staff. Invariably, they leave government service with a high opinion of the majority of the career [employees] they have worked with, lauding their ability, knowledge, work ethic and integrity. Interestingly, surveys of career [employees] after the fact have them saying the same kinds of things about the political appointees they have served under.

That said, what is true of the average is not true for all. You will need to assess your senior career staff as individuals and decide whether they are the right fit for where you want to go or whether they might best support the government somewhere else. Consult with your human resources staff if you want to move people [because] process is particularly difficult in the personnel arena.

Recognize that political appointees and careerists have different roles and responsibilities Despite having stressed the importance of a joint political/career team, it is worth emphasizing that they are each part of distinct communities. The two communities have different roles that need to fit together well for success.

Careerists tend to manage down and concentrate more on service delivery. Politicals tend to manage up and out and work on managing the stakeholders and the message. The political community is part of an administration that will last four to eight years and then move on. They bring innovation, a new agenda and the political connections to bring it about. They usually make or advocate policy. They are subject to different personnel rules and will be involved in political activities that are forbidden to career employees.

Your success will depend on your ability to build an effective senior management team to carry out your and the administration's agenda.

The career workforce tends to have a longer time horizon with the federal government. It brings continuity and the operational skills to ensure that programs are carried on from prior administrations or beyond the current one.

Be careful how you blend the political and career jobs

To a large degree, political and career jobs will be defined before you arrive. Political jobs tend to be reserved for senior policy-makers and their immediate support staff or for positions in which the administration conveys its views to the public. Career jobs tend to be more operational or reserved to ensure the impartiality or the public's confidence in the impartiality of the government.

Placing political appointees in operational jobs carries some risks. If you place a political appointee between career employees in an operational management chain, you risk reducing the operational efficiency of your organization. The careerists will be inclined to look for a political "sign-off" or feel the need to clear actions at a higher level. The appointee is like a "circuit breaker" in your management accountability chain that will regularly have to be reset.

In the long run, this can also have an impact on your legacy. One of the virtues of the career bureaucracy is continuity. What begins under you is more likely to continue when it is run by careerists. If the program is controversial, its likelihood of continuing is reduced to the degree it is under the direct management of a political appointee. You may want to have politicals in operational jobs as you get started, but at some point you will want to move careerists into those jobs for your legacy's sake.

Keep political appointees-only meetings rare and reserve them for political matters Your effectiveness in getting your agency to do what you want it to do will depend on your ability to build an effective joint political/career team. Your staff meetings should be joint, as should most of the meetings involving the management of your agency.

Nonetheless, you will find that you occasionally need to meet separately with your political staff on political issues. Such meetings might cover political strategy or campaigns. These are necessary, and the careerists should not be there. However, you will have more success running your agency if the two communities regularly work together in policy development and implementation.

Put it all together, decide whom to depend on and for what

Step one in harnessing the power of the career bureaucracy is figuring out whom to listen to and on what. But that is only step one. The more critical step is figuring out whom to depend on and for what. This applies to both the career and political side of your organization.

You will find most of your career staff to have the right combination of knowledge and inclination to support your agenda. Some may not be in the best positions to exploit the full force of their talents and need to move to new positions. Others may not be a good fit for what you want to accomplish and need to move as well.

Your success will depend on how well you put together this joint political/career team to deliver on your agenda. Some of this will be the matching of skills to the job, but some of this will be finding the right "chemistry" between your politicals and careerists. If you have a good team that works well together, you can get it done.

Don't reorganize your agency

One last thought: Reorganize only as a last resort. Government reorganizations consume enormous resources, always take much longer than planned and focus energies internally at the expense of the mission.

If you do reorganize, make sure you do it quickly, have the right career staff in charge and don't try to fix too many problems at once. Otherwise, the process takes over, and it is easy to lose a year or more to a reorganization initiative.


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